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The Story Behind ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’

Thomas A. Dorsey’s song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is one of the most beloved gospel songs of all time. The song’s power comes from profound personal tragedy. In August 1932, Dorsey, a Black band leader and accompanist, was on top of the world. He had recently been hired as director of the gospel chorus at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, and he was about to become a father for the first time.

Dorsey was nervous about traveling to a gospel music convention so close to his wife’s due date, but she gave her blessing. While he was in St. Louis, Dorsey received word that there had been complications with Nettie’s childbirth. He raced back to Chicago, but both mother and child died.

The double funeral took place at Pilgrim Baptist Church. Dorsey later said, “I looked down that long aisle which led to the altar where my wife and baby lay in the same casket. My legs got weak, my knees would not work right, my eyes became blind with a flood of tears.” Dorsey fell into a deep depression. He questioned his faith and thought of giving up gospel music.

Dorsey’s friend and fellow chorus director Theodore Frye persuaded him to accept a dinner invitation. After dinner, Dorsey meandered over to the grand piano and began to play the hymn “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone,” with its lyric “There’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.” Dorsey began to play variations on the hymn’s melody, adding new lyrics. He called Frye over and began to sing, “Blessed Lord, take my hand.” Frye stopped him: “No man, no. Call him ‘precious Lord.’” Dorsey tried it again, replacing blessed with precious. “That does sound better!” he told Frye. “That’s it!”

Dorsey returned home and finished the song “in the next day or two.” Dorsey debuted “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” for the Pilgrim congregation at a Sunday worship service. The lyrics filled the sanctuary that morning: “Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on, let me stand / I am tired, I am weak / I am worn.” Dorsey was shocked to find congregants out of their seats and in the aisles, crying out in prayer. His song of deliverance from unbearable pain touched the heart of a congregation of Black Americans with testimonies of their own—of illness, death, poverty, or the daily indignities of discrimination.

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